Blues want to find new ways to win during Stanley Cup defense

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NBCSN’s coverage of the 2019-20 NHL season begins with Wednesday’s matchup between the St. Louis Blues and Washington Capitals when the Blues raise their 2019 Stanley Cup banner. Coverage begins at 6:30p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.

Ryan O’Reilly walked into the room where his trophy bounty from the 2018-19 NHL season was being held and stopped to process the moment. A year ago at the time he was a member of a Buffalo Sabres team that lost so frequently he told the media the season had caused him to question his love of hockey.

Now there he stood eyeing his trophy haul — Stanley Cup, Conn Smythe Trophy, Clarence S. Campbell Bowl, Selke Trophy — from the past season and couldn’t help but say to himself, “Pretty good year.”

The St. Louis Blues’ summer of celebrating comes to an end Wednesday night when they raise their Stanley Cup banner to the rafters of Enterprise Center ahead of their opening night matchup against the 2018 champion Washington Capitals (6:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN; live stream).

The parades are over. The celebratory singing of “Gloria” has come to an end (for now). The beverage intake has gone from various alcohols to protein shakes. The rings have been handed out. And it’s time to go through the grind all over again.

“I think [the banner raising is] the last reflection before you start the journey again to the next one,” O’Reilly told NBC Sports. “Not changing a lot on our team, having a lot of the same guys, looking up [at the banner], it’s going to be cool. It’s going to be an electric night. 

“Once it’s up, it’s back to work to do it again. I’m excited for that. The best part of the journey is playing the game and being together as a group.”

One year before the Blues won the first Cup title in franchise history, Vladimir Tarasenko watched as his best friend, Dmitry Orlov, celebrated the Capitals’ championship win back home in Russia, along with fellow countrymen Alex Ovechkin and Evgeny Kuznetsov.

Tarasenko wanted to experience that for himself after years of disappointment in St. Louis and was inspired by what the Capitals had done.

“It shows if you follow your goal you can make it happen,” said Tarasenko.

Now that they’re champions and coming off the short summer that comes with that achievement, the Blues realize they will have a target on their backs. The roster will be just about the same as it was that glorious night in Boston, outside of Patrick Maroon and Joel Edmundson. That’s one reason why O’Reilly and Tarasenko feel they can repeat, something only the Pittsburgh Penguins have been able to achieve in the last two decades.

[PHT PREDICTIONS: EAST / WEST / STANLEY CUP]

“It’s never easy because every team is gunning for you,” O’Reilly said. “I think a good lesson for us, and we’ve talked about it with guys, is that we’re not going to do it the same way. We’re going to have to do it a completely different way; still keep the staples and the things we learned throughout last year, but we’re going to have to find a new way. We’re going to have to come out in games and jump on them right away, we can’t wait a bit until we find it. We have to be more aggressive in situations. There’s going to be that adjustment, too, of us finding new ways to have success.”

The way the 2018-19 Blues found success is something no team wants to repeat, of course. Crapping the bed in the first few months of the season, firing your coach in November, and finding yourself 31st in a league of 31 teams in early January, and turning to an unknown goalie isn’t a recommended approach if you have Stanley Cup dreams.

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So what challenges lie ahead for the Blues, aside from the usual injuries and cliche’d “Stanley Cup hangover”? Getting your opponent’s best, for one.

“Every team’s going to play against you a little bit differently because you’re Stanley Cup champions and everybody wants to prove that they can beat the Stanley Cup champion when they have the chance to do that,” Ovechkin told NBC Sports.

For some teams, they can start to feel the effects of a short summer and the compact schedule.

“I don’t know if it was so much the start but once the heaviness of the season starts to set in in December, January that’s when reality sets in, that’s when those dog days of the year are tough, when teams start to feel the schedule a little bit and some teams fall off,” said Jonathan Toews, whose Chicago Blackhawks had to defend three Cup titles. “That’s a time when you run on fumes a little bit and you’ve got to catch yourself and say Hey, we’ve got to do our job, we’ve got to stay with it.”

The first half schedule for the Blues isn’t too bad, but following their January bye week and the NHL All-Star Break, which St. Louis is hosting, that’s when it gets tough. 

In February, the Blues are playing practically every other night with 15 games in 29 days, including six away from home, four of which come against Central Division opponents. In a division that is promising once again to be highly competitive, those will be vital points on the line during a grinding portion of the schedule.

All the Blues can do is try to best prepare themselves for another 82-game slog towards the playoffs. It will be a learning experience no matter how this season ends for them.

“I guess once you’ve been through it once you definitely figure out what you could’ve done better the next time around,” said Toews. “Every situation is different depending on how many guys you lost in the offseason. The bottom line is you want to get back to the playoffs, you don’t want do make excuses. It’s always nice to acknowledge what the difficulties actually are so you can find ways to deal with it.”

It remains to be seen if Laura Branigan’s “Gloria” will return as the Blues’ post-win anthem, or if the shelf that held pucks from their 61 wins will be back, empty and ready to be filled again. Those are memories from last season and the time has called for the page to be turned. 

While the roster is nearly the same, and head coach Craig Berube no longer has “interim” attached to his title, the Blues are ready to go again. Just drop the puck.

“It’s funny, the best thing about the whole winning the Stanley Cup was playing the games,” said O’Reilly. “Those were super intense games, just so much fun. No one’s out there thinking I’ve gotta do this, I’ve gotta do that, you’re just doing it. That’s something I crave again, being in that situation and having those amazing opportunities to do great things. That’s what excites me. 

“For me, it was kind of an easy transition. It’s our Cup and we’re going to keep it. It goes in a case and we’re going to get it again at the end of it. I can’t wait to play in the games and compete for it again.”

Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN with a special 90-minute edition of NHL Live, as host Kathryn Tappen, analysts Keith Jones and Patrick Sharp, and NHL insider Bob McKenzie preview the evening’s doubleheader and the upcoming 2019-20 season. Jeremy Roenick will be on-site in St. Louis to capture the scene outside Enterprise Center prior to the raising of the Blues’ first-ever Stanley Cup championship banner.

Mike Emrick, who returns for his 15th season as NBC Sports’ lead NHL play-by-play commentator, Eddie Olczyk and Brian Boucher will call Capitals-Blues from Enterprise Center in St. Louis, Mo.

MORE:
2019-20 NHL Power Rankings
PHT’s 2019-20 season previews
• 2019 NHL free agency tracker
NHL on NBC television schedule

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Alexis Lafrenière tops list of NHL draft-eligible prospects

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Alexis Lafrenière, as expected, maintained the top spot in the NHL Central Scouting Bureau’s final ranking of draft-eligible prospects released Wednesday.

What remains uncertain for the 18-year-old Rimouski Oceanic forward and hundreds of fellow prospects is learning when and by whom they will be selected.

Forward Quinton Byfield and defenseman Jamie Drysdale, both from the Toronto area, were ranked second and third among North American prospects. Forward Tim Stuetzle, the German professional league’s rookie of the year, was ranked as the top European prospect.

At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds,

the NHL scouting bureau’s list of draft-eligible prospects.

When play ended, he was leading the Quebec Major Junior League with 112 points (35 goals, 77 assists) in 52 games. He was the league’s rookie of the year in 2017-18, when he scored 42 goals – the most by a rookie since Sidney Crosby scored 54 in 2003-04.

Lafrenière would have the opportunity to become first Quebec-born player selected with the first pick since goalie Marc-Andre Fleury by Pittsburgh in 2003.

The NHL draft, scheduled to take place in Montreal in late June, has been postponed. So has the draft lottery to determine the top seedings and weeklong pre-draft combine in Buffalo, New York. The draft can’t feasibly be held until the playoffs are completed or the entire season canceled.

That places the likelihood of the NHL holding the draft in September or as late as October.

And there is uncertainty over whether draft will go on as normal, with teams and fans gathering in an arena or instead closing the event to the public. That happened in the summer of 2005 when teams held the draft in a ballroom after the previous season was wiped out because of a lockout.

The postponements hit home for Lafrenière, who is from suburban Montreal and was looking forward to hearing his name announced at the Canadiens’ Bell Centre in June.

He took the news in stride last month,by saying: “For sure if the draft is online, it’s going to be different for us. But we’re still going to enjoy our time and still be happy there.”

Overall, Lafrenière has 114 goals and 183 assists for 297 points in 173 games. In January, he captained Canada’s gold-medal-winning team and earned MVP honors at the world junior championships.

In the past, the draft order among the 15 non-playoff teams was determined by lottery balls, with the team with the worst record receiving the best odds to win the top pick.

Though the season is incomplete, the Detroit Red Wings had already assured themselves of finishing 31st with a 17-49-5 record and 39 points, 23 behind Ottawa. Only six points separate Ottawa and Buffalo, which sits 25th.

Minnesota Wild: Biggest surprises and disappointments so far

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With the 2019-20 NHL season on hold we are going to review where each NHL team stands at this moment until the season resumes. Here we take a look at the surprises and disappointments for the Minnesota Wild.

The timing of their general manager and coaching changes was strange

The Wild made changes at two of the most important positions in their organization by firing general manger Paul Fenton and replacing him with Bill Guerin, and then later firing head coach Bruce Boudreau to replace him with Dean Evason on an interim basis.

On their own a team making a coaching or general manager change is not that big of a shock. The shock in Minnesota was the timing behind each move.

Fenton was fired just before the start of the season, after just one year on the job, and after he had already been in charge of their draft and free agency period (including the signing of forward Mats Zuccarello). Everything about that timeline was strange, and capped off a bonkers one year on the job that saw some significant changes and roster moves that may not have always left the team in a better position. Still, the change was totally unexpected.

Anytime there is a general manager change there is an always assumption that a coaching change could also be on the horizon as the new GM looks to bring in their own person. Especially when it is a coach in the position Boudreau was in — with the team for several years but with the situation starting to trend in the wrong direction. The Wild had missed the playoffs a year ago and for most of the season were on the outside of the playoff picture in the Western Conference. A change seemed inevitable, especially after a game earlier this season when the team was slumping and a lineup card mistake forced the Wild to play with a shorthanded roster.

The change eventually came, but it came during a stretch where the Wild were on an 8-3-1 run and starting to climb their way back into playoff contention.

The goaltending situation did not play out as expected

If the Wild were going to return to the playoffs this season it seemed as if that path was going to require a huge year from starting goaltender Devan Dubnyk.

Since arriving in Minnesota he has been one of the league’s most productive goalies and has been a big part of their success (and they have been successful) during his tenure. A big year from him could have masked a lot of flaws and been a game-changer.

They did eventually end up getting a game-changing performance from one of their goalies, but it was not Dubnyk.

It was Alex Stalock.

A backup for most of his career, the 32-year-old Stalock put together the best season of his NHL career and had a .910 save percentage at the time of the NHL’s season pause. He had been especially good through January, February, and March with an 11-5-2 record and a .918 save percentage.

On the opposite side of that, Dubnyk has struggled through one of the worst and most difficult seasons of his career, and certainly his most difficult one in Minnesota. Along with an overall down performance, Dubnyk was away from the team for a bit in November and December while his wife dealt with a medical issue.

He has been an outstanding core piece in Minnesota since the day he arrived, but the 2019-20 season ended up being a tough one for him in just about every possible way both on and off the ice.

Jason Zucker finally gets traded

The Wild had been close to trading him on multiple occasions over the past year (once to Calgary; once to Pittsburgh) only to have both trades fall apart at the last minute. But about a month before the trade deadline they finally moved him to the Penguins for Alex Galchenyuk, Cale Addison, and a first-round draft pick.

This is probably one that leaves Wild fans a little conflicted.

On one hand, Zucker was a really good player for the team and an incredible member of the Minnesota community. It is tough to see a player like that go, especially with the long drawn out process his involved (rumors, speculation, failed trades, etc.).

On the other hand, it is a pretty solid return for the Wild. Galchenyuk may not have much of a fit long-term, but Addison is an outstanding defense prospect and the first-round pick, even if it is a late one, gives them another chance at finding someone for the future.

Kevin Fiala‘s big year

This is the one trade that Fenton made a year ago that looks like it might actually work out in the Wild’s favor.

Just before the deadline a year ago he sent Mikael Granlund to the Nashville Predators for Fiala — a player he was obviously ver familiar with from his time in Nashville — and it has turned out to be a win for Minnesota. While Granlund has struggled to produce at the same level he did for the Wild, Fiala has been a great addition to the Minnesota lineup and was in the middle of a breakout year.

He already set a new career high in points (54) and matched his career high in goals (23) in only 64 games, while playing just 15 minutes per night.

Among the 531 players that have played at least 500 minutes of 5-on-5 ice-time this season, Fiala’s 2.63 points per 60 minutes is 16th best in the NHL, putting him immediately between Sidney Crosby and Patrick Kane. In other words: He has been awesome.

MORE WILD:
Looking at the 2019-20 Minnesota Wild

Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

Florence Schelling becomes first woman GM of top-level men’s team

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SC Bern of Switzerland’s National League has named Florence Schelling as its new general manager. The appointment makes her the first woman in such a role in top-level men’s hockey.

“We were looking for a young, fresh, visionary and intelligent person,” SC Bern CEO Marc Luthi told Berner Zeitung. “We looked at what the Swiss market had to offer – and came to the conclusion that there was no proven sports director available who would suit us.”

“We came to the conclusion: Florence is the person we are looking for and want,” added Luthi. “Yes, Florence will be a pioneer, probably worldwide in her new role. But she’s young, fresh, she’ll bring a new perspective and break up existing structures.”

The 31-year-old Schelling, who previously coached Switzerland’s U18 women’s team, was one of the best goaltenders in the world during her career. After debuting internationally at 15 at the 2004 Women’s World Championship, she spent the next 14 years representing Switzerland. She helped the country earn bronze at the 2012 Women’s Worlds and the 2014 Olympics, where she was voted tournament MVP. Both tournaments also saw her named best goaltender.

Before excelling on the international stage, Schelling was a four-year starter at Northeastern University and a 2012 Patty Kazmaier Award finalist.

Bern were National League champions in 2019 but ended up ninth out of 12 teams this season. One of Schelling’s first duties after she begins next week is to find a new head coach.

“I was surprised like all of you when I received the call from Marc Luthi,” said Schelling, via IIHF.com. “We had a couple of discussions about working together and they were very positive. I knew immediately that I wanted to accept the challenge. My main goal is to do a good job and bring SC Bern back to the top.”

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

Our Line Starts podcast: Bettman’s update on NHL’s potential return

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In this episode, Liam McHugh, Brian Boucher, and Patrick Sharp react to Gary Bettman’s interview with Mike Tirico from Tuesday afternoon. Bettman addressed the conference call he and other sports commissioners had over the weekend with President Trump, and also said “nothing has been ruled out” regarding a possible return to action. Plus, Boucher and Sharp remember playing in the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the first time.

0:40-3:25 Boucher and Sharp give their first playoff memory
3:25-14:40 Mike Tirico interviews Gary Bettman
14:40-17:20 Most fair way to build 16-team playoff right now?
18:00-24:50 For or against playoff games at a neutral site?

[MORE: Unique NHL playoff format looking more likely]

Where else you can listen:

Apple: https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/id1482681517

Stitcher: https://www.stitcher.com/podcast/nbc-sports/our-line-starts

Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/7cDMHBg6NJkQDGe4KHu4iO?si=9BmcLtutTFmhRrNNcMqfgQ

NBC Sports on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/nbcsports